How I became a play-based learning convert
This may shock you but I was once an Newly Qualified Teacher (or NQT as we call them). Passionate, dedicated and ready to change the world with my particular view of teaching. I was certain the teaching ability I had developed (with much support) over the three years of my BA in Primary Initial Teacher Education at the University of Worcester was the way forward and I knew all there was to know.
However, my NQT year was in Key Stage One with Year One pupils. As a graduate of later years, this petrified me, but I was determined to do the best I could for the children. Like most NQTs, I tried to help them to be successful and enjoy their time in school but I have to be honest, there was something missing. Although by the school’s (and OFSTED’s) standards I was giving the children a good quality education, I felt I could do even better.
Sometime later, I found myself teaching Year Two pupils in the Middle East. It was here I started to realise what the missing ingredient for my teaching was... PLAY. I had always provided practical and interactive lessons for my children but it wasn’t until I taught through the Kathy Walker Learning Approach that I realised the power of child-led play. The Kathy Walker Learning Approach makes children active in their learning through personalised hands-on and creative exploration and investigation. This was my introduction to a personalised curriculum that focussed on the transformational power of valuing play and in structuring my teaching to follow the interests of my pupils. Suddenly, teaching became something I couldn’t wait to tackle because of the fascinating interactions I was having with my pupils.
So, why don’t we all just play?
To be honest, as a teacher, play is difficult. It's challenging to plan lessons because the interests of individual pupils are so different. It’s also tricky to evidence progress, because much of play is ephemeral, but oh my goodness, the long-term effects are incredible. George (2011) goes so far as to say that child-led learning based in play can transform the engagement of the most challenging child. Wood (2013), meanwhile, suggests that although the exploration of interests can be cognitively demanding, the educational benefits are not always measurable or visible. Therefore, because of strict accountability measures, learning through play is unpopular in schools.
This is a shame because, when asked about the benefits of play-based learning, I don’t think there is a teacher alive who wouldn't list the following:
- Higher retention of knowledge
- Shorter take up time
- High levels of engagement
- Flexibility to be inclusive to all learners
- Potential to challenge gifted students
- Development appropriate to the child
This is supported by Bass and Walker (2015), who cite developmentally appropriate practice and intentional teaching through play as a key ingredient to academic success.
What can we do to encourage leaning through play?
- Be brave, stick to your principles and invest your time into researching play-based pedagogy. As with anything of quality, play takes time to yield results in measurable ways.
- Blind sceptical colleagues with science. UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation (2018) have teamed up to produce evidence-based research that demonstrates how play in early years can lead to children being more able to invest in education in later stages of their life. If the creators of the ubiquitous brick can’t sway the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) there are scores of journals, websites and forums that are dedicated to the promotion of child-centred play.
- Plan lessons around questions, not answers. Think about the interests of your pupils first and how they can link to the areas of the curriculum you need to include. Lastly if you can’t do anything else, make room for structured play in lessons with obvious links (Science, Art, D and T, P.E.).
- Most importantly: value and invest in your Early Years teachers. Skilled practitioners in this area can teach your whole school about the relationships you need with children to engender the best outcomes from play-based learning.
Bass, S. and Walker, K. (2015) Early Childhood Play Matters Intentional teaching through play: birth to six years, Victoria, ACER Press
George, D. (2011) Young Gifted and Bored, Carmarthen, Crown
Wood, E. (2013) Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum, 3rd Edition, London, Sage
UNICEF (2018) Learning Through Play: Strengthening Learning through play in Early Education Programmes, New York, United Nations Children’s fund
Jacqueline Hine is a lecturer in Primary Initial Teacher Education alongside supervising dissertation students on the Primary Outdoor Education course. The Primary Initial Teaching Education (With QTS) BA (Hons) at the University of Worcester offers pathways in both Early years (ages 3-7) and Later Years (5-11) and offers a balance between involving and innovative teaching and supportive placements.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.